Learning the ropes: why Germany is integrating risk into its playing fields | Germany


Towering over a wooded playground on the northern outskirts of Berlin, the Triitopia playground is one to worry any anxious parent.

Children ages six and up weave their way through four stacked steel wire buckyballs and climb dangling rope ladders until they reach a platform about 10 meters above the ground. forest floor. Parents can try to follow their young climbers as they ascend through the spider web of the rope, but they could be left behind in the tightly woven mesh.

If climbing the Triitopia seems risky, it is: Built in 2018, the climbing tower at Ludwig Lesser Park in Berlin-Frohnau is emblematic of a trend that has accelerated in Germany over the past five years. years. Playgrounds, according to a growing number of educators, manufacturers and urban planners, must stop seeking absolute safety and instead create stimulating microcosms that teach children to navigate difficult situations, even if the consequence is a broken bone.

“Playgrounds are islands of free movement in a dangerous motorized environment,” explains Professor Rolf Schwarz of Karlsruhe University of Education, who advises boards and designers of playgrounds. “If we want children to be prepared for risk, we have to allow them to come into contact with risk. “

Even insurance companies agree. An influential 2004 study found that children who improved their motor skills in playgrounds at an early age were less likely to experience crashes as they got older. As young people spend more and more time at home, the umbrella association of statutory accident insurers in Germany called last year for more playgrounds that teach children to develop ‘risk skills. “.

The maximum drop height in the spider web of the Triitopia structure is 1.8 meters. Photograph: Philip Oltermann / The Guardian

The leisure and sports equipment fair, which takes place this week in Cologne, will give an idea of ​​what such playgrounds might look like. The manufacturer of the Triitopia climbing tower, Berliner Seilfabrik, will present its new seven-meter-high “DNA tower” and the 10-meter “Tour4” with a whirling metal slide to reward enthusiastic climbers.

“Our designs have grown significantly in height in recent years,” says co-manager David Köhler, whose company has been manufacturing string-based play structures since the 1970s.

“Children may not feel safe when they first climb our nets, but that’s actually what makes the structures even safer. Because when you don’t feel safe, you are also very careful.

An intellectual tradition of seriously thinking about play and versatile gaps in cityscapes after WWII mean that Germany has a history of experimental playgrounds: many cities have ‘garbage playgrounds’, such as Berlin’s Kolle 37, where children can build their own structures and parents are only allowed in one day a week. However, the dividing line between Abenteuerspielplätze (“Adventure playgrounds”) and traditional playgrounds are increasingly disappearing.

“The holy trinity of playgrounds – swing, swing and slide – is in decline,” says Steffen Strasser of Playparc, one of some 60 German manufacturers who not only supply the country’s estimated 120,000 playgrounds, but also export in the whole world.

In Cologne, Playparc will present its range of Etolis platforms with deliberately wobbly suspension bridges, equipped with a minimal guardrail and without a safety net. Strasser bristled at the mention of the low platforms surrounded by rubber mats that are still ubiquitous in British and American playgrounds.

Triitopia climbing tour at Ludwig Lesser Park in Berlin's Frohnau district
The Triitopia Tower is surrounded by planks and netting to ensure that no child can fall from a height greater than three meters. Photograph: Philip Oltermann / The Guardian

“Modern playgrounds explore the limits of what is allowed under regulation,” says Strasser. “When we design new play structures, we try to create challenges: an obstacle, for example, that a child may not overcome the first nine times but then make it to the tenth attempt. “

“The objective is to leave the greatest freedom while guaranteeing the greatest security. We don’t try to avoid every broken leg possible.

Germany is often seen as a nation politically and economically averse to risk, where daily life is governed by a strict regime of rules and regulations. However, when it comes to playgrounds, the stereotype is misleading: here, it is the strict control of standards that in the first place allows a culture of accepting risk.

Playground equipment in Germany is certified by TÜV, the same association that provides German drivers with the equivalent of a MOT or MOT certificate for vehicles. As a result, the Triitopia Tower in Berlin-Frohnau is surrounded by planks and netting to ensure that no child can fall from a height greater than three meters. In the spider web inside the structure, the maximum drop height is 1.8 meters. A sign urges parents to remove their children’s bicycle helmets to eliminate a strangulation risk.

Once a playground has passed the TÜV, manufacturers can use the certificate to defend themselves in court against accident lawsuits. In the United States, where certification in most states is done by those who market a playground structure, manufacturers are more vulnerable to lawsuits and often more risk averse.

TÜV also trains its own playground inspectors, who learn not to always enforce regulations to the letter, but to conduct flexible risk assessments. The UK’s national standards body, the British Standards Institute, on the other hand, does not inspect playgrounds but outsource the work to private companies, which can lead to a culture of ticking the boxes.

Even so, Germany’s dizzying climbing towers may soon become models of playgrounds in Britain and the United States. The International Organization for Standardization is revising its standards for sports and recreational equipment and may in the future encourage playground designers to consider not only the risks, but also the benefits of rickety bridges, unbalanced steps and steps. high climbing frames.

“We are seeing a slow change in attitude,” says David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University. “There is an awareness [in the UK] that playgrounds have become too sanitized: if you only think of them as a series of potential dangers, you are missing out on something important.

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